A new sailplane glider from Microsoft can fly without a motor and is piloted by artificial intelligence (AI). The device, announced in a Microsoft news release on Wednesday, floats on currents of hot air like a bird, and could be used to test next-generation technologies.

The glider was tested in the Nevada desert, where the release noted that the team was in pursuit of developing what it called an “infinite soaring machine.” The sailplane uses the AI developed by Microsoft to constantly seek out thermals, so it can continually stay aloft on the hot air.

“Birds do this seamlessly, and all they’re doing is harnessing nature. And they do it with a peanut-sized brain,” Ashish Kapoor, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said in the release.

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While the birds that follow this technique have a sort of intuition about finding the hot air currents, the AI has to measure the air temperature and the direction that the wind is blowing, and account for no-fly zones as well, the release noted. Then, it has to predict where it could find more thermals in order to stay in the air.

The system is complex, and Kapoor noted in the release that the AI powering the sailplane is one of the few systems in the world today that can both make predictions and act on them as well.

While the thermals are working to keep the sailplane aloft in these early tests, the release also mentioned that the team could eventually update the device to run on solar or wind energy as well, so that it could stay in flight even longer.

A constantly-flying glider like this one could be used for a host of tasks, such as monitoring crops over a massive farm. It could also be used, Kapoor said in the release, to provide mobile internet service in poorly-connected areas as well.

“These can be your cellular towers someday,” Kapoor said in the release. “You don’t need any ground infrastructure.”

Using aircraft to deliver wireless service has also been tackled by Facebook with its massive, solar-powered Aquila drone and by Google with its Loon project that utilized special balloons.

Outside of its own practical applications, the Microsoft sailplane could also be used as a way to test new forms of AI and how they respond to certain situations. Testing in a real-world environment could help develop AI systems that will power autonomous driving and other innovations.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A new sailplane from Microsoft uses AI to find and ride on thermals, which are hot air currents that keep it aloft.
  2. The sailplane could be used to monitor crops, or to provide wireless internet access to underserved regions.
  3. Microsoft can also use the sailplane as a testbed for new AI innovations, and to better develop AI for autonomous driving and other applications.